Five Purchases the Saavy Traveller Shouldn’t Miss (or Why I Love SkyMall)

Summertime in the UAE means two things: temperatures outside will compete with those on the surface of the sun, and school holidays begin. This July, I joined the crowds fleeing the crushing heat and humidity to visit home. I love to travel, but I detest flying. Long-distance flights equal desperate hours sandwiched between my cement-hard seat back and the headrest of the reclining passenger in front of me. As my aches and impatience grow by the second, SkyMall magazine has become a small sanctuary in the claustrophobic and sometimes chaotic conditions of economy class.

If you’ve flown a major airline, you have probably seen Sky Mall. Don’t confuse it with the useless Duty Free catalog offering mere perfumes, jewelry and booze or your airline’s in-flight magazine highlighting its destinations and the selection of chips and chocolates priced for the uber-wealthy. I mean the SkyMall. The gem, no, the jewel in the crown of catalogs. Its pages contain a level of consumer bliss adequate to distract passengers from even the worst flight anxiety. Sky Mall is, in its own words,almost universally known among affluent and well-educated travelers who are receptive to innovative, unique products.”

I like to save the magazine as a treat for later in the flight, just as I do the tiny packet of ginger biscuits, or if I’m lucky, the microscopic Toblerone that comes with my meal.  I held out for nearly eleven hours before eagerly lifting it from its pouch. “Can’t get enough sparkle?” asked the cover. Oh SkyMall, you don’t know where I live, do you? I was sad to see this edition seemed a bit thinner than previous ones. I couldn’t quite pinpoint what was missing, but I suspect they thinned out the vast array of monogrammed products and fantasy series replicas. I was relieved to see I could still buy my own copy of the One Ring that Rules Them All. Still, I suspected I had been cheated of at least 20 additional minutes of shopping pleasure.

I suppose not even SkyMall is immune to the global economic downturn. However, a quick glance through its pages offers hope to consumers that there is still much we need to spend our limited incomes on. Here are five of my favorites.  

1. The Somawave Helmet

(His enthusiasm is contagious.) 

Who doesn’t like a nice massage to “disconnect from the world we know,” and relieve the stress and tension caused by everyday life. Head/neck massage and vibration on demand? Yes, please. Look at the smile on this man’s face. Here’s an opportunity no one should miss.

SkyMall’s writers point out that Somawave is light and portable, but they should perhaps rethink their claim that it can be taken anywhere. Somawave-wearers might not be well-received in certain public places, and should maybe restrict their usage to the privacy of home. I should also point out the accompanying warning in case any forklift or crane operators are hoping to use this product to avoid workplace stress:

Caution: Do not wear while operating heavy machinery. The SomaWave Helmet’s euphoria inducing waves may produce sleep or trance-like states of consciousness.

Ha. Good luck machinery operator. A person wearing this contraption has about as much chance of entering a blue-collar workplace as they does an airport, government office, or any place with security guards.

Warnings aside, if this product delivers as promised, maybe I should buy a couple to pack safely away in my suitcases. Since most mind-altering substances put me at risk of a lengthy sentence in a UAE prison, followed by deportation, the Somawave could offer a safe and legal evening of euphoria and bliss.

2. Easter Island “Ahu Akivi Moai” Monolith Statue

As an apartment dweller, now is not the time for giant statues, but I can dream. Dear readers, should any of you have access to a rooftop, garden or large balcony, this exotic addition would be perfect for avoiding post-holiday blues. Forget bird baths, fountains, or plastic flamingos. Thanks to Sky Mall’s suggestions, I have realized that no outdoor space is complete without a replica of one of the world’s great mysteries.

Sky Mall promises that King Moai will, “astound and impress guests at your next Polynesian luau.” I’ll keep that in mind. If nothing else, perhaps the giant staring eyes will frighten away pesky animals, trespassers, or nosy neighbors. I should add that the replica is not stone like the original, but is made from high quality resin.  Hosing down any pet or bird-related messes this large object could attract would be a breeze. Recreating Easter Island in my garden was never one of my Pinterest fantasies, but thanks to Sky Mall, I know have great plans for a future outdoor space.

3. LED MagicShowerhead

(Because the shower should be where the magic happens.)

I bet you spend at least a few minutes a week trying to pinpoint what your bathroom is missing. What would make you feel more pampered, more luxurious, more complete? SkyMall has the answer—a more colorful shower.

According to SkyMall, MagicShowerhead illuminates your water with seven different colors, creating an experience to match the needs of its diverse readers. Searching for a “club like experience” in your own bathroom? Four flashy colors (and I’m assuming your own piped-in music) should do the trick. With action like that in the morning, I might not even need my morning coffee. Want to relax? Stop paying for pricey spa visits and create your own “spa-like environment” by setting the colors to slowly fade and change. Even environmentalists can appreciate MagicShowerhead. Three timed alternating colors help you limit your water consumption.  Doing your part to save the planet while enjoying a light show? Priceless.  

This shower head truly is “magic.” All you need to do is choose hand-held, fixed, or both! I don’t know who writes the copy for this magazine, but I want him or her to write my resume, biography, and eulogy. Hats off to this master of modern marketing.

4. Large Super Skate Sail

(How could this possibly end badly?)

My first thought on seeing the Super Skate Sail was, “Wow, that looks like a lot of fun!” SkyMall presents this product as a great way get adults and children outside and away from the TV, so perhaps it could be powerful enough pry me away from my laptop. The Super Skate Sail has three methods of use, so I wouldn’t be limited by my lack of skateboarding skills. I had found a hobby, a new sport I might actually enjoy.

Then practicality set in. There is a reason why sails are usually associated with water sports as opposed to land. The ocean offers pretty much unlimited space. I can’t think of many places in Abu Dhabi that offer adequate room to zoom along uninhibited with wheels and a 9′ by 11′ sail. There’s also the slight issue of creating a spectacle. As a Westerner, I attract enough unwanted attention just by being a minority. Breezing through town with a giant colorful sail (and maybe a matching helmet) would probably just add to the usual stares. The pleasant gulf breezes would most likely propel me from the Corniche walkway into the capital city’s busy streets within minutes. A Lexus SUV/Super Skate Sail collision is the kind of accident that could even make its way into print or broadcast media. SkyMall, you may have let me down this time. 

5. Jeans Lounge Pants

(They’re jeans, they’re pants, they’re perfection!)

SkyMall, you’ve just redeemed yourself.

Fellow American travelers, I’m sure you will be the first to appreciate that this product has not one, but two major benefits. Firstly, fashion. Who wouldn’t want their own pair of what at first glance appears to be stylish, ripped acid-washed denim circa 1991? Wait for it—that’s not denim it’s, “actually super-soft cotton with amazingly realistic front-and-back printing and a much more forgiving stretch.” Americans like forgiving stretch. It goes great with buffets, Thanksgiving, and chili cheese fries. These even have an elasticized drawstring waist. I hear my couch calling.

Secondly, what an incredible souvenir to bring back after a visit from the good ol’ USA! Nothing says, “this came from America” like “jeans” and “lounge.” You can’t lose. Buy a pair for your favorite co-worker, colleague, or friend, and maybe an extra pair for that awkward moment when you are surprised with an unexpected post-vacation gift. There is even a discount for purchasing 2 or more.

You’re welcome.

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Taste of Home

One stereotype I’ve frequently heard in my travels is that “Americans are fat,” or more rarely, we are “too obsessed with fitness and gyms.” 37.5% of American adults are obese.* Not, “I need to lose a few pounds to feel fit, “ actually obese. I’m not particularly interested in what the rest of the world thinks about our weight, but I am very concerned about how it affects our next generation. One of the saddest aspects of this issue is that heart disease and diabetes are affecting our population at a younger and younger age. A 2008 study by the Center for Disease Control found that over a third of children and adolescents in the United States were either overweight or obese. 

When I taught in the US, the sad state of my students’ diets was painfully obvious. One day as I watched my students line up, I realized that over half of my class of ten year-olds were overweight, and some of them were quite obese. Fourth graders should sprint across a playground or gym with joy and ease, not wheeze and stop to catch their breath after climbing the ten stairs between our hallway and the art room. They should move with energy and grace, not have difficulty walking due to the size of their thighs. If they wear a size 3XL jacket, it should be due to fashion rather than necessity. Finally, under no circumstances should they have “cankles.” If this the state of a person at ten, what chance of health do they have at forty, fifty, or even thirty?

(Cankles: Not suitable for children)

Some of my students seemed to live on a diet of Hot Cheetos and Doritos. I did not allow them during snack time, but every day they brought giant bags to share in the school cafeteria. The food the school provided did not fare much better. Most meals were 90% refined carbohydrates. Pizza, hamburgers of questionable content, nachos and processed chicken bits molded into a variety of shapes were the weekly staples.

(Because everyone knows Cheetos give you energy for soccer and other sports)

Ten year-olds have limited control over their diets. Parents and teachers can educate children on healthy habits and lifestyles, but give a kid a choice between a roasted chicken sandwich and a Happy Meal, and they will pick the Happy Meal every time. I can’t even place full blame on their parents. I taught in an area of high poverty, and most of my students relied on the school breakfast and lunch as their main source of nutrients and vitamins. In the United States, processed junk food is far more affordable than fresh vegetables and fruits, so schools in districts like my previous one should have made nutrition an even higher priority to match the needs of its students. The lack of fruits, vegetables and whole foods in my students’ diet was a daily source of frustration and sadness for me.

(Let’s guess what parts of the chicken are inside!)

When I moved to the UAE, I expected to see a healthier nation with healthier children. Fruits and vegetables are very inexpensive here, and there are numerous fish markets and butchers with fresh and high quality products. The less processed your diet is, the lower your grocery bill. I would probably spend more on an imported can of chicken soup than I would on the ingredients to make my own. I also teach a population that is not only high income, but also has household staff to prepare healthy and delicious meals. Time and money are not a factor in the diets of 95% of my students. Surely I’d see students eating tasty healthy meals at school. Maybe I’d even get some interesting local recipes from them. Oh, how naive I was.

(My vision)

My colleagues and I spend our days observing our students eat with a mix of shock, amusement and horror. Some students’ schoolbags and lunch boxes  more reminiscent of my post-trick-or-treating Halloween sacks than my school lunches. Students enter the building with lollypops in their mouths, finish snack time with brown mustaches from Nutella sandwiches, and shout goodbye from their buses with mouths full of cookies they didn’t have time to finish during breakfast. The non-sugar contents of their school bags aren’t much better. I don’t worry too much about a small packet of potato chips if part of a balanced meal, but a chocolate sandwich, potato chips, and three types of candies should not fit anyone’s definition of an appropriate breakfast, especially for the growing body and brain of a five-year old. 

(The reality)

A recent study by the World Health Organization showed that a third of Emirati children are overweight or obese.* The education system here is beginning to address this, albeit slowly. As teachers, we’ve created themed units on healthy living and schools offer information days and health screenings for parents as well as students to attend. I’m so proud of my own local co-teacher for enforcing the no-sweets and no-chips rule in our classroom. Every day we praise the children who bring fruit or vegetables, and sweets and chocolate biscuits are immediately confiscated (although sometimes I eat them myself if it’s been a particularly trying day).

I can’t help but wonder where this problem is coming from. I thought that increasing childhood obesity was only a problem in some Western countries. I saw it in the USA, Ireland and the UK, but it didn’t seem as bad in other European countries where diets had more variety and populations were more active. Globalization certainly brought McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s (yeah!) to the UAE, but somehow I can’t accept that it is entirely responsible for a rising obesity epidemic on the Arabian peninsula. What exactly is happening here? One of the most mind-blowing aspects of the chocolate (or processed spreadable cheese) sandwich phenomenon is that it’s taking place in a country with some of the best food options I’ve experienced outside of New York City. 

The UAE is mainly desert, but its proximity to some of the most fertile areas of the planet give us access to a vast variety of fruits and vegetables. If I want to buy eggplant, I have around six different types and colors to choose from. Bananas are the same. I can choose from the standard yellow banana I grew up with, sweet Indian mini-bananas, fat brown ones, or orange flaky ones. The majority-expat population means that supermarkets cater to customers from a number of countries and continents. Not only can I find most of my favorite products from back home, but I can try something new each time I make a grocery run. The same principle applies to restaurants. I rarely go out for “American” food unless I’m craving a good burger. I can find a restaurant from any Asian country I can think of, and the Lebanese and other Middle Eastern restaurants offer the delicious spreads our school lunchtimes are missing. Let’s not forget shawarma and felafel, some of the cheapest and most delicious snack/light dinner foods known to man. I don’t know what I’ll do whenever I leave this region behind. Shawarma cravings are a powerful thing, and they aren’t easy to reproduce at home.

(Lamb, mint, onion, tahina, HEAVEN)

Easy access to ingredients that were once exotic has resulted in new additions to my cooking. My kitchen has become the proverbial melting pot. Exposure to different seasonings and spices means that my black-eyed peas now get a little cumin and turmeric. Hummous, one of my favorite staple snacks and sometimes meals used to mean a trip to Trader Joe’s. Now, tahina is in every store I go to, and I can whip up my own delicious hummous in less than five minutes. I was not exactly born and raised on hummous, in fact, I didn’t know it existed until high school. To my unsophisticated teenage eyes, its beige color and pasty texture did not result in love at first sight. Thankfully we met again in college and began a long and beautiful relationship. Now I enjoy foods from all over the world, and I’ll try most anything as long as I don’t have to promise I’ll like it, even though chances are I will.

(I love you)

One surprising thing I’ve learned in my travels is that wherever I go in this world, I will never be far from one of my childhood comfort foods: fried chicken. Colonel Sanders’ slightly creepy, condescending smile can be seen on street corners around the world. Numerous other chains claiming to serve “Southern” fried chicken are everywhere. It’s not your mama’s fried chicken, my Southern brothers and sisters, and the KFC sides won’t be the same ones you remember from picnics, funerals and family reunions, but if I want battered and deep-fried chicken, I can find it.

(I swear, something’s just not right about the Colonel)

Fried chicken may always be available, but other favorites from home have been difficult to impossible to replace. I’m not convinced I can even find a proper version of one of my all-time favorites, hush puppies, outside of the American South. Hush puppies, for those who have not yet had the pleasure, are one of the simplest culinary pleasures known to man. Take corn meal, season it, add some jalapeno bits if you like, and deep fry them. Eat them with fried seafood. Eat them with anything. You will fall in love before they’ve even finished melting in your mouth.  

(Hush puppies. AKA: Love, deep-fried in grease)

Shrimp and grits, with some white cheddar cheese and hot sauce poured over the top: my mouth waters. The combination of two amazing foods rolled into one bowl of goodness. I pretty much stick to a grain-free diet, but for the occasional bowl of shrimp and grits (with hush puppies, perhaps) I will make an exception. If you’ve never lived in the South, you will not understand grits. They have to be prepared by someone who knows what they are doing, and when they are, they are a treat.

I will never figure out why Mexican/Tex Mex cuisine can not successfully travel beyond the continent of North America, but in my experience, it just can’t. Despite the availability of most of the ingredients, the chef is bound to offer a bizarre international interpretation of a dish or use some horribly inappropriate substitute for a crucial component. If I had to choose one Mexican food I miss the most, it would be the one I gorge myself on whenever I visit the States: chorizo. Chorizo is a spicy sausage that is wonderful with anything. Eat it with eggs, tacos (my favorite) or just a giant fork. I miss the smell, the texture, and the flavorsome red oil that soaks everything it touches. Buying my ticket for a visit home starts the chorizo countdown every time.

(just one evening of last year’s chorizo-fest)

I guess it’s a good thing I don’t have access to my favorites from back home in addition to my local favorites here. If I did, I’d probably end up making my own personal contribution to the UAE’s obesity statistics. It would be difficult to model healthy eating habits to my students with chorizo grease trailing down the front of my abaya or to praise Abdullah’s apple slices through a mouthful of shrimp and grits.

Missing food from home gives me yet another commonality with the UAE’s diverse expat community. You can ask people from Canada, Nepal or the Sudan: it doesn’t matter how many ingredients or restaurants you can find that look just like the ones in your own country. Nothing tastes quite the same when you’re far from home. Fried chicken is best enjoyed near magnolia trees instead of palms, just like felafel tastes better when the call to prayer and grape-scented sheesha smoke drift through the streets. Those irreplaceable, non-portable favorites just gives us one more thing to look forward to when we get home.

Question: What foods do you love the most about countries you have visited or lived in? What foods do you miss the most from your home?

Addition:  Please visit this excellent website for a fast and FREE way to contribute to organizations working to feed those in need all over the world.  All you have to do is click the button and the website’s advertisers will donate the equivalent of 1.1 cup of food to a needy person.  Want to do more?  Donate more or purchase some of the lovely fair-trade items for sale on the site.  10 seconds or less a day to help eradicate world hunger…

http://www.thehungersite.com/clickToGive/home.faces?siteId=1

References:

1): http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

2: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm

3: http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/health/official-concern-grows-over-rising-child-obesity

Expat-riotic?

I’ve spent nearly eight years of my adult life living abroad, and I hope to spend many more experiencing other countries and cultures. This is not a result of negative feelings or experiences I had growing up in the United States. I could write pages of pros and cons for all 3 countries I’ve lived in, and will always love the USA for what it’s given me and my family. I view my attraction to expat life as more of a personality trait. It keeps me stimulated and challenged, and I feel renewed and energized by the dramatic changes to my environment every few years. In a recent conversation, I was told, “If you want to learn about other countries, watch travel shows. If you want to learn about yourself, travel.” I wholeheartedly agree. However, I do often wonder how my time living abroad affects my national identity and my relationship with my native country.

Eighty percent of the UAE’s population are expatriates. I spend my day’s tasks speaking with people from the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and numerous Arab and Western countries. We communicate in the UAE’s own brand of English, with varying degrees of success. When taxi drivers or others who hold me as a captive audience ask where I’m from, I often claim Ireland rather than America because it’s about as neutral a country as I can think of. I get a few comments on a past cricket-related tragedy from some of the Pakistani drivers, but that’s about all people can say about the place, and many don’t know where it is. Cricket is very serious to a lot of people, but pales in comparison with Guantanamo, Israel/Palestine, and whatever bombs America has recently dropped on the native country of the person I’m speaking with. Some Americans reading this now might be shaking their heads in disgust or disappointment at my lack of patriotism, but sometimes I’d rather sell out to a stranger than suffer through an unwelcome political tirade after a stressful day at work or at the start of a relaxing evening out. And for any Irish readers, don’t get too angry with me. I do hold dual-citizenship, so I have slightly more legitimacy than most Americans that claim to be Irish ;-).

(Can you see the teddy bear?)

(Such a huggable, friendly nation.)

When I visit home and speak with family, friends and others, I often feel unusual as an expat. Only 2% of Americans live overseas, compared to an estimated 10 and 20 per cent of the British and Irish populations, respectively. The opportunities available due to our size and economy have allowed most of us the luxury of remaining cocooned in our own country. For most Americans, life abroad is restricted to a college semester, or a week volunteering with a church. Unless you are in the military, spending extended periods of time abroad is usually a lifestyle decision rather than a necessity.

Does spending long periods of our lives abroad make us less patriotic, or just different? Do we owe our countries more by virtue of our birth and experiences there, or in today’s global community have things changed? As an overseas resident, I’m not required to pay taxes, so I’m not contributing anything to my country financially. At the same time, I’m not paying into Social Security, so if I return here for the later years of my life, I will not be able to rely on much financial support from the government. Dollars aside, I don’t feel that my individual absence is robbing the US of much. We are a nation of immigrants, so I’m not contributing to brain drain, especially with a degree in Political Science. The US is more like a brain vacuum. Most of our best and brightest stay, and we attract many of the best and brightest from other countries. 

Living abroad has definitely reduced my activities as a politically involved and informed citizen. Again, this stems from my own personal choices and preferences. While many expats from the US and other countries seek out detailed news on their home countries from their families and media, I tend to shy away from a lot of it. I’m constantly frustrated by my country’s domestic and foreign politics, but while social media provides a myriad of opportunities for activism, I’ve found myself using my expat status as an excuse to sit back and watch events that disgust me with a sense of disconnect. When it comes to voting, you’d better believe I have my absentee ballot ready. Beyond that, my attempts to keep up with current affairs back home are mostly restricted to watching The Daily Show. Somehow, since it’s thousands of miles away, I have found it preferable to choose blissful ignorance over activism on a number of current events that upset and anger me. Friends back home post articles and discussions on Facebook about an issue or disturbing development, and rather than looking into how I can change it, I quickly click onto something less upsetting. This not only lets my country down (well, those with the same political views that I have), but makes me disappointed in myself. I take a shameful comfort in the fact that I live far away from these happenings, even though in my heart I know I should take a stand, even from across many miles. 

(You should be ashamed of yourself, young lady!)

That said, living abroad has made changes to my heart and soul that I would never dream of reversing. One of my favorite travel quotes states, “Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living (Miriam Beard).” When a person lives abroad, it is impossible for their personality, their views, and even their ways of thinking to remain static. If we do not adapt to our surroundings, we will not survive, and will fly back to the comfort of our home and its familiar surroundings. When we move into a new culture, we must immediately become active observers rather than passive participants.

We are bombarded by the sensory overload of new sights, sounds, smells and tastes, and there is much to be learned from each. The language barrier is obvious and expected, but gestures and facial expressions may have subtle differences that carry important meanings. Voices of our host citizens may be louder or softer than our own, and we may need to change the methods by which we get the attention of others. In many countries, the expat will always stand out simply by our physical appearance, but we learn how to dress and behave to appear as one with awareness of and respect for our host culture.  

As we observe, we must constantly question, “why?” But here lies the key to true gain from traveling or living abroad. We as expats or travelers must decide How to ask Why, and What we will do with the answers.  This determines the speed with which we pass through the stages of culture shock, and brings about profound change.  The answers may surprise, please, or infuriate us. We may learn something that upsets us, confuses us, or excites us tremendously. We may see errors or injustice in a particular practice, or we may want to adopt it as our own. We may, heaven forbid, face the realization that the way we have always done something is not necessarily the best way. Sometimes, we may just accept the difference as what it is: difference. Isn’t this what life is about no matter where we live?

It’s the constant observing, questioning and adapting that makes me feel so alive when I travel. Life is more about the moment than the past or the future. I don’t always have time for deep analysis. The newer and more alien the environment, the more aware and reactive I must be. I become more conscious of the social dynamics of my immediate environment and empathetic towards the moods and motivations of others. If I can successfully navigate my way through an unknown city and make a purchase in a different language in a busy market, months or weeks later, my first days in a new workplace in my own country and culture will pale in comparison. The survival skills I develop as a traveler translate to sharpened social skills when the journey ends.

Time to return to my original question. How does living abroad affect my national identity and relationship with my home country? My country won’t miss me that much, but what happens to me as I spend more time away from it? When others question me about my country, can I offer less insight as someone who has spent an increasingly smaller percentage of my life in the country of my birth, or more insight as one who has experienced the practices and beliefs of other cultures? Can I effectively and accurately attempt to translate American ideas and practices into a context a non-National can understand?

Living abroad has certainly broadened my outlook compared to a typical US Citizen. Watch an American news broadcast. How much of the broadcast is dedicated to domestic stories compared to foreign affairs? Very little. In most countries, this ratio would be far different, or even reversed. I’ve been blessed by the opportunity to experience other cultures, practices and other religions. I’ve spent the past year and a half being reasonably content and successful in a place that is ignored, misunderstood, or even feared by the majority of the US population. I’ve seen first-hand just how much media influences American perceptions of the rest of the world, and I’ve also experienced just how much of an effect tiny decisions in our country have on others.

As I become less familiar with the subtleties of American pop culture and the latest fashion trends, I become more aware of US Foreign Policy and the strong effects it has on the rest of the world. I’ve seen the magnitude of our place in the world, and how little we know about it. The media doesn’t give us much of an idea what’s going on outside our borders, and we spend most of our lives inside our daily bubbles of work, family and sports. The rest of the world doesn’t have such luxury.  They are forced to be aware of us because our decisions affect their sovereignty.  

There is another world beyond our borders. We can’t ignore it. We affect it daily. We build allies and burn bridges constantly while our lives go on and on. Our policies affect those in places the average American has never heard of. This, in turn, creates political allies and enemies that affect us. My identity as an American has indeed changed significantly. I see myself as a global citizen. My actions, all our actions, affect more than just ourselves. Here is where more shame lies in my current political apathy. My vague idea of America’s involvement throughout the world should encourage me to be even more informed and active in the decisions my government makes. I have the opportunity for dialogue with those from other countries affected by my government’s daily decisions. What are their experiences, opinions and desires?

Questions: If you have lived or traveled extensively abroad, what was your greatest benefit from the experience? How do you think living abroad affects your relationship with your country of birth? For expat readers, what would it take to make you go home?

S#*t Women Say–UAE Style

Facing cultural differences is one of the joys and challenges of expatriate life. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy living abroad. If I weren’t fascinated by different cultural practices, I would have stayed safely in the United States. Before traveling to a new country for a weekend visit, or two year contract, I do a bit of research in order to learn about my guest culture and to be as sensitive and educated as possible. However, I’ve learned the hard way, that no matter how many “Living and Working in (insert country here)” books I read, I can’t avoid the reality that I, as a foreigner, will frequently misread a situation completely or say something I later find out is culturally inappropriate. I’ve had to embrace the fact that my time abroad will be full of moments ranging from slightly awkward to completely mortifying. After the embarrassment is over, I have to hope that the experiences will make entertaining stories for others, or will at least result in some type of character development. One thing I’ve noticed is that some of the most surprising differences are the ones that jump at you when and where you least expect them.

I was born and raised in the Southern United States. Part of my heart will always remain in Atlanta, Georgia. Southern culture, like any culture, holds much to be proud of and much that could be improved on. Southern women in particular have a highly complex set of rules that we learn about navigating the social realm, and these rules make deep roots. One of the first lessons little Southern girls learn is the etiquette regarding comments on the appearance of others. We are rarely honest about appearance to a person’s face. If a woman gets a new haircut, we rave about how good she looks whether the style is red-carpet worthy, or could easily be mistaken for a stray poodle. New makeup? “Beautiful!” Neon orange spandex jumpsuit? “How flattering, girl!” “Don’t be silly, you don’t look fat in those skinny jeans.” Any negative comments, no matter well intended, are viewed as a deliberate insult, and usually result in hurt feelings, offense, or anger. If we detect a desire for a genuine opinion on something that looks bad, we can be honest, but we choose our words with the caution of a watchmaker unless the asker is a family member or extremely thick-skinned. Is this practice insincere? Maybe. Is it fake? Yeah, I guess so. Is it expected? Absolutely. It’s just the way we do things down South. It probably has a lot to do with our reputation for out-of-date hairstyles and fashion. No one has the heart to tell anyone how bad they look. Blame it on our blood—In the South, we just don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, at least when we are present to face the consequences.

(This lady is obviously Southern, or someone would have stopped her from going out like this.)

The negative side of this rule rears its ugly face the moment a woman leaves the room. Behind a person’s back, my Southern Sisters and I have free reign to think and speak freely, and speak freely we do. We focus on minute details you’d need a microscope to examine, and make comparisons and analogies worthy of a Pulitzer prize. Southern women can be extremely two-faced, and this can be very hurtful. However, since it follows the rules we learned as children, we are far more prepared to hear critiques of our appearance second-hand, than to our face.

Even though I’ve lived in other countries and am used to slightly more honesty regarding appearance, years of training on denial and avoidance runs deep. I used to tell my students back home, “if you don’t have something nice to say about a person, don’t say it at all.” Not so much here in the UAE. I work in an all-female environment, and the authority and bluntness local women employ when discussing appearance has been a source of surprise and amusement since my first few days here.

My colleagues and I were some of the first foreign employees to work at our school. We were welcomed, yet viewed with a mix of fascination and trepidation. Different preferences in clothing, hair styles, and application of make-up has been observed and commented on by both sides. These differences have led to numerous amusing, unexpected, and thankfully innocent encounters. Like women everywhere, Emirati women are obsessed with meeting the ideal weight and body structure, and the significant weight loss I achieved during my first year here made me a constant object of attention and discussion, mostly in a language I can still barely speak.

Weight is a sensitive topic with women. In the South, if it’s handed poorly, it will quickly result in tears, or passive aggression at a minimum. Here, discussion of weight combines brutal honesty with what I really, really hope is a love for exaggeration. Frequent and sincere compliments on my weight loss were always accompanied by lively comparisons to how I looked when I first began work. These “before and after” conversations always involved wild animated facial expressions and gestures that have convinced me that I must surely have been mistaken for a whale, rather than a new teacher. I should really have taken more photos of myself on arrival, because apparently, not only did my face resemble a blowfish, but my hips and rear were so large, I must have unknowingly been knocking over chairs and tables as I circulated around my classroom. I’m grateful my thunderous footsteps did not cause damage to the windows and skylights, and I’m surprised I was able to squeeze through the classroom door openings.

(Me pre-weight loss—according to the miming)

None of these actions or pantomines were meant to hurt me in the slightest, and were used as an addition to their compliments. They always included multiple repetitions of Mashalla (as God wishes) to reinforce this fact, and the women hounded me for diet and exercise secrets. I will never cease to be amazed by the drama and attention given to a subject that is actually quite personal, and a potential emotional minefield. Thank God I have a sense of humor, and my Southern training made me retell the stories and gestures with my friends (behind the women’s backs of course) as I convulsed with laughter rather than tears. Had this happened in the South, such “insults” would have made it impossible for me to return to the workplace.

I am not alone in my experience of blunt and dramatic comments on my appearance by teachers from non-Western countries.  One friend was pulled aside while teaching to hear another teacher’s urgent concern for her taste in lipstick. Apparently, no one could tell that she was wearing it, and her favorite color was wasting her time and money. My friend’s response that she preferred natural colors was dismissed with speed and authority, and she was advised to switch to a brighter color as soon as possible.  The gain of a few grams of weight is immediately announced, usually with a lot of finger-pointing to the area of concern, and advice on how to lose it quickly follows.  Another favorite question experienced by many of my associates is, “What’s wrong with your face?” The feature causing such alarm could be freckles, a suntan, or even acne. It seems that several local teachers serve dual roles as cosmetic/fashion police, and their duties are often given priority over instructional time. Beauty discussions are very important, and are neither subtle, nor restricted to tea break conversation.

The importance of beauty during and outside of work came as a small surprise to me. The national dress for Emirati women is the abaya, a graceful black gown that can be completely plain, or covered in elaborate designs. It is worn outside the home, over a woman’s other clothing. All Emirati, and most other Muslim women here wear a hijab or shayla that covers most or all of their hair. A smaller percentage of women choose to wear gloves and the niqab, a veil that covers their face except for their eyes. Part of the reasoning behind veiling is to bring the focus away from women’s physical attributes and more towards their personality and abilities.

(Some particularly blinging abayas and shaylas)

(A woman wearing the niqab)

I’d previously read several articles and websites on veiling to educate myself not only on the religious and cultural traditions behind veiling, but on the opinions of the women themselves. I kept reading about the liberation felt by women who veil by choice. I could truly appreciate how wearing the hijab or even the niqab could be freeing rather than restricting, and several quotes really spoke to me:

The idea behind that was that the sexuality of one didn’t influence the other, so that men and women would treat each other like equal human beings,” *

“It keeps me protected from the fashion industry. The hijab liberates you from the media, brainwashing you into, Buy this, buy that, you’re supposed to look like this,” she says. “It allows me to be who I am. I don’t have to worry about being popular through buying things that are ‘cool’.” *

The definition of beauty is ever-changing; waifish is good, waifish is bad, athletic is good – sorry, athletic is bad. Women are not going to achieve equality by putting their bodies on display, as some people would like to have you believe. That would only make us party to our own objectification. True equality will be had only when women don’t need to display themselves to get attention and won’t need to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves.”*

(Bikini vs Burqa)

Women dressed in such a way would be protected not only from men’s lusty stares, but from men’s judgment of our worth based on beauty alone. Sadly, what living here has reinforced for me is that as women, we can escape men, but we can not escape ourselves.

Emirati women, just like their Western counterparts, are bombarded by advertisements and reminders of what their bodies and features are lacking.  My current job offers me daily opportunities to see what lies beyond the veils.  Beneath their shaylas and abayas, many women of this country enhance their faces with elaborate makeup, decorate their hands and feet with intricate henna designs, and beautify themselves from head to toe using every product and procedure possible. Like Western women, my Arabic sisters eagerly track down products and guidance in constant pursuit of the ideal of beauty.

In my particular school, all of the women are married and at least half of them don the niqab when they are outside. That means that the only males who see their faces are their sons, husbands, many of whom are living or frequently travel abroad, and certain male family members. So who do we dress up at work for? Why do so many of us, myself included, spend time carefully applying makeup and hair products to spend our day working with small children and other women?  Because we constantly scrutinize our own appearance and the appearance of other women.  It is impossible to escape assessment by our own gender.

Did you get a little fat?”  “This dress is very nice on you.” “Why you no straighten hair today?”  We are constantly critiqued as well as complimented. I’m just as guilty as the next woman. “Threading is so cheap here, why can’t she just get rid of that unibrow?”  “Wow, look how much she bleaches her skin. I’ve never seen a person that color.”  “Look at her in that tight abaya. Who does she think she is?”  We are so quick to note and comment on other women, and sadly it is negative far more often than positive.  Are we so insecure, that we must be harsh on others in order to protect ourselves?

Standards and definitions of beauty differ throughout countries, cultures and classes, but the desire to be beautiful is worldwide. It’s not just about men—-hardly. Perhaps those with a stronger background in feminist theory would argue that this all stems from patriarchal culture, but I’m looking at the practicalities of daily life rather than complex theories of origin. I feel that subconsciously, I often work harder to impress the women in my life than I do the men. Let’s be honest with ourselves.  We look to other women for reassurance and validation on our own appearance.  We judge ourselves by a far higher standard and focus in on tiny details that most men would never dream of.  We examine, question and critique each other with a ferocity that never ceases to amaze me.

I began this post by comparing the frankness my host culture uses when discussing beauty with the Southern way of “softening the truth.”  We may use different words and methods, but I believe no matter how much we choose to cover or uncover, women the world over judge each other according to their appearance.  We can cloak ourselves from head to toe and hide every millimeter of skin from men, but we will never escape the eyes of other women.

I admit I have not yet braved this subject with local women, and I wonder if they would agree with my opinion. Perhaps the honesty and openness they employ when discussing appearance shows a comfort with their flaws that I as a non-hijabi Westerner do not have.  Maybe the equality and liberation they feel beneath the shaylas and niqabs extends to their relations with other women, and the harshness I describe is purely a reflection of my own insecurity.  Living in a different culture affords me the opportunity to answer these questions, and my next step should be to find the courage to ask them.

Question: Do you agree that women are each other’s harshest critics when it comes to appearance?

*References:

Quote 1: http://old.post-gazette.com/headlines/20011028muslimwomennat3p3.asp

Quote 2: http://www.islamfortoday.com/hijabcanada4.htm

Quote 3: http://www.iisna.com/articles/pamphlets/the-hijab-reflections-by-muslim-women/

Pride and Privilege

Here’s a conversation I experience at least twice a day: “What country, madam? Oh, you’re American! Very nice country.” “Um, thanks.” I always feel strange when I’m complimented on my country, especially when the person I’m talking to has no connection with it. It’s not something I chose, like a shirt, or something I have created, like a drawing. It’s something I was born with. To complicate matters more, I often feel that revealing my American identity while living abroad is far more complex than just naming my country of birth. It seems to come with a role I have to play. I’m an American. Therefore, I feel the asker is waiting to judge whether I am a) a Cool American (just like our movies, music and pop culture) or b) an Ugly American (arrogant, wasteful, demanding, and at least partially responsible for any problems their country happens to be experiencing). Let’s not forget that since I’m female, if the asker is male, there is a good chance they think I’m at least moderately slutty, so the minute I admit I’m American, I start to feel slightly uneasy.

I suppose all nationalities come with a certain amount of baggage. Every country’s name brings certain images to mind, and these images vary from person to person. When my inquisitive taxi driver is Egyptian, I think of pyramids, the Nile, and Tahrir Square. What are his images of America? Jobs? Friendly people? Hollywood? Bombs? Intrusive foreign policy? Support for corrupt and dangerous regimes to support our own interests? My sense of unease increases.

The worst is when asker then shows shame for their own country. “Oh, madam, America is very nice. My country __________ (insert developing country here) is ___________ (insert some criticism that makes me want to crawl under the seat in front of me). On the flip side, so many Americans, particularly a certain type of Americans, are always talking about how proud they are to be American. I love my country, but I find this particular sentence difficult to relate to. What does it mean to be “proud” to be an American? What does it mean to be proud of any nationality? To me, pride is reserved for achievements. I am proud of my MA that I worked hard very hard for. I’m proud when I see my students learning something I have taught them. All countries offer beauty, culture and insights to the rest of the world, and everyone should have love for their country of birth. It’s the word pride that troubles me. How can I be proud of something I have no control over? In a sketch about Americans who are particularly hostile to immigrants and other nationalities, Chris Rock pointed out, “all you did was come out of your mother’s p**** on American soil. That’s it. That’s it!” Vulgar, yes, but most definitely true! Congratulations to the 300,000,000 of us for being delivered within a certain geographical region. Luck of the draw, baby!

Compliments on my country obviously come from people who are not American, and often come from people from countries with far less available resources and opportunities. I say “available” because so many of these countries contain vast wealth held hostage by a greedy and powerful ruling elite. Back to Chris Rock, “What, you think you’re better than somebody from France ’cause you came out of a p**** in Detroit?” I sure don’t think I’m better, but many times I wonder why me? Why was I born in a country where we buy bottled water to suit taste preferences, but someone else was born in a place where they will die before the age of five because their water comes from a sewage ditch. Is there a obligation that comes with my “lucky” birth? If so, what on Earth is it?

I was blessed to be born in a country where, God willing, I will never starve. I’m not hustling folks to buy necklaces so I can feed my babies. No one is going to come and drag me from my home into a jail because I blogged something negative about my government or signed a petition. It goes beyond that. I can lose everything, but I will never truly be in danger of living on the streets, because my social safety net involves parents happy to welcome me back to their large home. Yes, we have plenty of ghettos and bad neighborhoods, but at home I’ll never drive past acres of homes made from corrugated steel and tarps. In the current state of the world economy this could change, but probably not in my lifetime. Why me, and what do I do with this?

As a woman especially, all I have to do is turn on the television or log onto the internet to see examples of lives I escaped only due to chance. I was born in a country where I was entitled to choices. I was not married off at 13 to a 35 year old man. No one mutilated my genitals at 9 to destroy my sexuality and make me worthy of a future husband. No one expected me to stop my schooling and cast away my talents and interests because it was time for me to be a good wife and stay under the watchful eyes of others. Why me, and what do I do with this?

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel to many countries that do not share the same protections and privileges I have in my country of birth. I’ve seen the slums, I’ve been asked for money by dirty children and mothers holding empty bottles. I’ve turned my head and refused in order to protect myself. Protect myself from what? More begging? Losing money I want to spend on souvenirs? Or to protect myself from a unique phenomenon I think of as Privileged Guilt.

As a budget traveler, I can easily “slum it” in cheap dive hotels, use candles during 12-18 hour power cuts, sleep on railway station floors between connections, and spend days fearful of being less than 30 seconds away from the nearest toilet knowing the pesky traveler’s curse could strike at any time. However, my privileged Western behind will never truly know what it is like to live like this. This will never be my reality, and I thank the Creator for that. Because I have been blessed with an easier life, some part of me wonders whether this obliges me to somehow do something to better the situation of those who have it much harder. Is this a valid way to feel, or is it the just another expression of condescension from a relatively wealthy member of the developed world? Am I just another douchebaguette-bleeding-heart-wanna-be sitting in an exotic destination writing about poverty? Who knows….

Do we ever transform Privileged Guilt into something productive? Usually we return from our journeys or documentary viewing to gather with friends and discuss it over coffee. These sessions include lots of head-shaking, sighs, and “we shoulds.” Living in an insanely wealthy country like I do, we like to point the finger at those with more wealth and talk about the changes They should make and the wrongs that They perpetuate. This provides an excellent distraction from our own potential, and leads to far less uncomfortable conversations, like the wrongs of governments that, as expats, we have no control over. I often wonder if I am a poster-child of fruitless Privileged Guilt. I pursued not one, but two degrees in the hopes of aiding the fight against global wrongs and inequality, but found the whole thing to disturbing for ongoing work on the subject. Additionally, I never did marry the Che Guevara-in-the-making I dreamed of at university, and I thank the Creator for that as much as I do my privileged birth! I sure wasn’t cut out for that sort of life, although perhaps his revolutionary activities could have lessened some of my feelings of obligation to those less fortunate.

So back to the original question: What is pride in one’s country? Where does Privileged Guilt come from, and is it valid or uber-patronizing? Do you feel it? Do you do anything about it? Give this expat some answers before my next trip. Or, I guess I could always just visit a wealthier country.